It is twenty years today since the then French under-21 skipper Steed Malbranque swapped Lyon for Fulham in a £4.5m deal. The move wasn’t anywhere close to being the most high-profile in a summer of serious spending as Jean Tigana readied his charges for life in the top flight, but the diminutive playmaker quickly became one of the most important figures in Fulham’s side and a cult hero at Craven Cottage. He married magnificent technical ability, honed at Clarefontaine under the tutelage of Christian Damiano, with an insatiable work ethic and remains – for my money – one of the most underrated Premier League performers, despite spending almost a decade in the top flight.
Away from the football, Malbranque was quiet and unassuming. He largely kept himself to himself and had to be cajoled into giving interviews, believing that nobody could possibly be interested in what he might have to say. In Malbranque’s mind, he did all his talking on the pitch. He had already announced himself to Fulham fans before he had actually signed with a superb display at Selhurst Park, where he appeared as a trialist running rings around Crystal Palace, and the salute of ‘Steeeeeeeeeeed’ was born. So bashful was the Frenchman that he initially had to be convinced that the Craven Cottage crowd weren’t booing him, but once he was put right he grew to enjoy the chant – gesturing to the Hammersmith End for more after scoring on a frequent basis.
It didn’t take long for his skills to be appreciated in English football. Fulham struggled for goals after a bright start to life amongst the elite, but Malbranque was their most potent threat – scoring ten times in his first season by the river Thames – as he drifted into dangerous positions from the point of a midfield diamond with remarkably regularity. He played his part in the premature end to Jaap Stam’s Manchester United career making Louis Saha’s second goal at Old Trafford in the Whites’ astonishing display against the champions on the opening day and opened his Fulham account with a beautiful finish that briefly brought parity against Arsenal, who had tried to sign him as an eighteen year-old.
A brilliant brace beat Southampton at the end of September before he clinched Fulham’s first win at Upton Park since 1980 by tucking away Saha’s perceptive pass from just inside the box after a trademark late run from midfield having laid on Sylvain Legwinski’s opener from a corner. He grabbed a winner at Elland Road with an improvised finish of real quality after Leeds had failed to clear a set-piece and played a prominent part in Fulham’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals, opening the scoring as the Whites won at York in round four.
Malbranque’s influence only grew the following season, with twelve goals underlining his importance as the side struggled to find the net on a consistent basis. He scored one and set up another as the Whites roared back from 2-0 down to stun early pacesetters Spurs in a breathtaking comeback at Loftus Road and scored Fulham’s first UEFA Cup goal, a measured finish on the counter attack to clinch an impressive win over Hajduk Split in the intimidating atmosphere of Stadion Poljud before tilting the second leg back in Fulham’s favour by keeping his cool from the penalty spot to equalise after the referee had ordered a retake. He scored four times in four games in February, finishing that month with a hat-trick that eliminated Charlton from the FA Cup.
Malbranque’s form didn’t dip after Tigana’s departure as the fleet-footed French flourished from a wide position in Chris Coleman’s 4-3-3 formation, part of a front three that devastated defences alongside Luis Boa Morte and the sublime Saha. He sparked a comeback against Manchester City, before starring in the unforgettable triumph at Old Trafford – scoring once and laying on the clinching third for Junichi Inamoto. There was an equaliser and assist for Brian McBride’s winner on debut against Tottenham and he settled a pulsating FA Cup replay against Everton, before briefly sparking hopes of another win at Manchester United by successfully converting an early penalty.
Malbranque scored twice at St. James’ Park in Fulham’s astonishing smash and grab raid – most memorable for Mark Crossley’s magnificent afternoon in goal – the following season and his brace brilliantly beat Blackburn in the penultimate fixture of the season. He scored twice to remind Stuart Pearce of his quality after Manchester City’s summer-long pursuit of his signature had failed the following year and returned from a prolonged injury lay-off to pinch a precious three points against Newcastle after coming off the bench. Perhaps his most effective display that season was one where he didn’t find the net but instead completely snuffed out Claude Maekele as Coleman’s men beat Chelsea in March. One of his best goals was a sensational curler into the Hammersmith End top corner against Portsmouth, which was soon followed by a late strike that sunk Wigan and it was perhaps fitting that we remember his Fulham career with the final goal – a fabulous late winner at the City of Manchester Stadium that clinched the Cottagers’ first away win in more than a year – rather than the manner of his departure after an acrimonious dispute with Coleman.
Damiano wasn’t exaggerating when he compared the mercurial Malbranque to Zinedine Zidane – and it remains baffling to me that he was ignored by a succession of French national coaches. His eye for a pass, ceaseless running and unerring finishing ability made him an integral part of Fulham’s first five seasons in the top flight. Malbranque was a majestic midfielder, who racked up more than fifty top flight assists altogether in his time in England conclusively answering those who derided a lack of end product. He was consistently class and made it all look effortless. Merci, Steed.